Sunday, December 13, 2009

The "Backstory" on Juan Pablo Escobar

I was interviewed by CNN anchor Michael Holmes this week for the show "Backstory" about my experience spending time with Juan Pablo Escobar, now known as Sebastian Marroquin, the son of the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. We spoke about the day I spent with Marroquin, watching the documentary about his life, and the article I wrote about it for Newsweek. You can read my Nov. 15th blog post about that day below.

It was an unusual position for me to be in; I am usually the one asking questions, not answering them. But I think the "Backstory" segment turned out very well. It was the lead story on Friday's show. You can watch it here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Going Green: Sustainable Bamboo

My report for CNN's "Going Green" week about sustainable bamboo practices aired this week. I got to spend a lovely day in Tigre, Argentina filming the story. My on-air report as well as my "Reporter's Notebook" and a photo slideshow are available here.

And you can watch the "Backstory" (and watch me eat bamboo) here.

Photos by Brian Byrnes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Gay Marriage That Wasn't (yet)

It was the historic wedding that wasn’t. Jose Maria Di Bello (l) and Alex Freyre (r) were set to become Latin America’s first same-sex married couple on December 1st in Buenos Aires, but an 11th-hour ruling by a federal judge in Argentina halted the ceremony. That wasn’t going to stop them from a good fight, however. The couple -- decked out in black suits, matching silver ties and wearing bright red sashes over their shoulders -- showed up at the Civil Registry in Palermo on Tuesday intent on getting hitched. Hundreds of others were there as well: friends, family and scores of journalists, including myself. Argentina’s gay community was out in force, carrying banners, waving rainbow flags and chanting “Equality, Equality!”

A small group of police in riot gear were also on hand, but wisely stayed a half-block away. A friend told me the police had originally set-up right in front of the courthouse entrance, but a city official yelled at them to get the hell away. The way she saw it, there was no reason for them to be there; it would only cause problems. And there weren’t any problems, save for two young men that yelled “putos” (“homos”) at the crowd, and those two were quickly arrested.

Despite noisy protests and many, many, many speeches by supporters inside the sweltering lobby of the courthouse, Alex and Jose Maria were not permitted to marry. The city of Buenos Aires decided not to challenge the challenge to the earlier ruling, which brought jeers and boos for Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, despite the fact that he was the man who had essentially opened the door for the marriage (see below) in the first place. It’s scary how quickly a politician can go from hero to enemy, and on that day Macri was called every name in the book. I think the criticism was undeserved, though, because at that point it really was out of his hands, legally speaking.

On the morning of the planned ceremony, I did several live shots for CNN International talking about the issue, including this one with CNN anchor Natalie Allen.

In the week leading up to Tuesday’s scheduled ceremony, it seemed that every media in the world wanted to speak with Freyre, 39 and Di Bello, 41. They had to send phone calls straight to voicemail, ignore emails and leave texts unanswered. Such is the territory that comes with making history.

The proposed marriage came about because Freyre and Di Bello challenged Argentina’s constitutional ban on same-sex matrimony. When a Buenos Aires city court judge agreed with their claim last month, it allowed them to request a marriage license. Soon after, Macri decided not to appeal the decision, and the ceremony was quickly scheduled for December 1st -- World AIDS Day, a symbolic day for the two HIV-positive men to become husband and husband.

“This is very important for people in general, not only gay, lesbian and transgender people….it’s a human rights question,” Di Bello told me.

I had arranged for CNN to have the first interview with the couple on the day they spoke to media outlets from around the globe. When I was done, the Associated Press interviewed them, followed by media from Brazil, Germany, Spain and the U.K. Originally, I wanted to interview Alex and Jose Maria at their home, and we had arranged to do that, but after receiving literally dozens of international interview requests (in addition to non-stop appearances on local TV and radio programs) they thought it best to do them all in one place, at one time. I could hardly blame them. They chose the Axel Hotel Buenos Aires, the city’s first gay hotel, which also has locations in Barcelona and Berlin. The Axel Hotel markets itself as “hetero-friendly” but it caters almost exclusively to gay men. When we arrived at the hotel, their press handler tried to persuade us to do the interview in front of the Axel Hotel logo; I declined, I wasn’t looking to promote a hotel; I just wanted to interview them. You can see some “Backstory” material on that here.

Needless to say, the proposed gay marriage caused quite a stir, not only in Argentina, but throughout Latin America, where the Catholic Church is still highly influential. Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio criticized the development, and had especially harsh words for Macri, who he said “failed gravely at governing.” Macri had announced his decision not to appeal the verdict via a 1:45 video posted on YouTube, a move that angered many, even his staunchest supporters.

“We have to live together, accept this reality, and recognize that the world is moving in this direction,” Macri says in the video.

I spoke to one congressman from Macri’s conservative PRO party, who was furious that the mayor didn’t alert his party members about the decision.

“He took everyone by surprise with that one, and many our constituents are not happy,” he told me.

And indeed, despite Buenos Aires’ reputation as a progressive Latin American capitol – it was the first city in the region to legalize same-sex civil unions in 2002 – there are still many people here who are angered with this development. All across the city this past week, there have been bright yellow posters plastered on walls with an image of two men kissing and the words, “Did you vote for Macri for this?”

When the first gay civil-union took place in Buenos Aires in July 2003, I was there, covering it for various media outlets. In the days prior, I had filed several reports, including this one for NPR and this one for the Christian Science Monitor. On the day of the civil unions ceremony, scores of journalists were trying to cram into the small room in the downtown government building where it was taking place. When it was complete, the two men, Marcelo Suntheim and Cesar Cigliuitti, exited the building in a raucous hail of rice, confetti and music. I had my microphone and MiniDisc recorder and -- like every journalist there -- was trying to get some words from the men. In the chaos, a television cameraman from a local news station kept chopping me in the back and accusing me of getting in his shot. Truth is, the pandemonium was the problem, not me, but he chose to take his frustration out on an easy target: a young foreign journalist. After he smashed his lens into the back of my skull, I shoved him, and started cursing at him in Spanish with words that I didn’t even knew that I knew. I think this surprised him more than intimidated him, but he looked ready for a fight, and frankly, so was I. That was until two of his co-workers got in my face too and I realized that this was a losing battle. So I quickly peeled away from the scrum, and got some words from the couple from another angle. That’s the only physical altercation I’ve ever had as a journalist. At a huge street party surrounded by men in dresses. Go figure.

Thankfully, there was no violence this week. But the issue is still a raw one. There was a palpable sense of anger from the gay activists I met on Tuesday. I think the fact that they came so close to having the first gay marriage only to have it snatched away at the last minute really pissed them off. And I can understand why. Despite the legal limbo, I think the writing is on the wall. The Argentine Supreme Court is now examining the case, and I suspect they will rule in favor of it soon.

Photos by Brian Byrnes

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The "Backstory" on Argentina's Forensic Anthropology Team

There have been many, many stories told about Argentina’s horrific 1976-1983 “Dirty War,” when the military ruled the country with an iron fist, squashing any dissident voices. At least 10,000, and perhaps as many as 30,000 people, “disappeared” during this dark era. I have done several reports over the years on a variety of topics related to the “Dirty War,” from amnesty laws being overturned in 2003, to the public opening of a former detention center in 2004, to the (still) missing witness from a trial in 2006. As more and more former military leaders appear in court on human rights abuses, and more and more victims are identified, the issue continues to be a very important one for many Argentines. When I learned about the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF, in Spanish) and their tremendous success in identifying and reuniting family members with the remains of their loved ones through the use of science, I immediately wanted to do a story about them.

From the initial inquiry I made with the team until I got my profile of them on-air on CNN this week, 11 months passed. I normally don’t have the time (or patience) to wait that long to make a story come together, but something told me that this would be worth waiting for. And it was. The nearly year-long process was a result of several factors, like scheduling conflicts and weather, but chief among them was getting permission to film at an exhumation site. Understandably, some people are hesitant to allow cameras into an area where their loved ones presumably spent their final, violent, moments. After much back-and-forth with the EAAF team, I was invited in October to visit a cemetery with them in La Plata, Argentina. First, though, I would need to send an official written request to a Federal Judge’s office to ask permission. When I was told this, I immediately thought it was a lost cause; the Argentine judicial system works at a snail’s pace (at best) and I figured it would be months, if not years, before I had a ruling. To their credit (and my enormous surprise) they had an answer for me within a week, faxing me an 8-page opinion signed by all seven judges from the La Plata federal jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, the answer was no.
For the aforementioned reasons, they denied my request to enter the cemetery and film. I also learned that French television network, France 2, was seeking access as well; our requests were denied simultaneously. I think the EAAF team could sense my frustration, so they quickly suggested another site in the neighborhood of Merlo where they felt it would be easier for us to enter. And they were right. I didn’t need to file a written request; I was told that the judge would just meet me there. And indeed he did. On the day we went to film, the judge and his two assistants showed up, along with the provincial prosecutor, his handlers, a local TV news crew, police and several others. The EAAF team told me that they were all there looking for a little fame on international TV, because normally they don’t draw such a large crowd. And while I would have liked to have included all of them in the story, the simple fact is that there is not enough time on-air to interview every single person. Moreover, this was a story about the efforts of the EAAF team, not about the specific grave that was being exhumed that day. I politely explained this to them, and they seemed to understand. I did get all their email addresses, and sent the story link to them; the only one who responded so far was a young provincial police officer who was monitoring the exhumation that day.

The Santa Monica cemetery in Merlo is huge. I don’t know how many people are buried there, but just from looking at it, I would say tens, if not, hundreds of thousands. This was definitely a provincial cemetery in a humble part of town; no grand, ornate mausoleums like you see in Recoleta cemetery where Eva Peron and other Argentine dignitaries are buried.

After we arrived to the cemetery, we watched EAAF team members -- Mariana Segura, Analia Simonetto and Alejandra Ibanez (pictured above)-- get their tools arranged and get ready for the dig. Truth be told, most of the grunt work of shoveling the grass and dirt was done by the cemetery workers. But once they had access, the EAAF team got right into the graves and got dirty, meticulously separating dirt from bones. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, to watch. The first grave that they exhumed was of a person who had died in 2001, so they had to locate that body, remove it, and then search for the body of the person they suspected was killed by the military in the late 1970s that was buried underneath. That whole idea blew my mind: Someone who died eight years ago was buried on top of another person – a possible victim -- and in order to confirm that, they needed to remove the other body. That, of course, requires permission and notification of next-of-kin, and sure enough, two relatives of the person buried on top were present, monitoring the process. Those bones were removed and will be put in a more communal grave (as opposed to an individual plot). I was told that even if the EAAF team didn’t request the exhumation of that grave, that removing and relocating skeletons after a period of at least five years is a common practice at cemeteries in Argentina, because of limited space. If a family has the money to re-bury the body, they can do so in another private plot, but if not, it goes to a communal spot. All the bones of each individual are still separated and stored apart from the others, but they likely do not have a private plot. This surprised me as well. Is that common in other parts of the world too?

As the exhumations continued under a hot sun, I interviewed Sara Cobacho, (above) the 78-year-old secretary of the Human Rights Office in Buenos Aires province, who is also a member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Sara lost six family members to the dictatorship, including two of her sons, 23-year-old Enrique in 1977, and 28-year Oscar in 1978, and she herself was detained in a illegal detention center for six months in 1976. I could see the years of pain and anguish on her face. I could also sense her strength and determination. She now works closely with the EAAF team during their digs, although the remains of her two missing sons have yet to be recovered. I don’t know if she showed up that day because she wanted to be on CNN, but I didn’t really care. She was an important person to speak with, and had some very intelligent things to say during our interview. I feel privileged when I meet a person like Sara.

Next, I interviewed Mariana and Analia of the EAAF. We did the interviews first in English, then in Spanish. Both women continually apologized for their English skills, but there was no need for them to do so; they both spoke very well. When preparing a report for CNN, I always try to find people who speak English, as I feel it makes the story just a little easier to understand, since you are hearing the words directly from their mouth. Of course, in this part of the world, not everyone speaks English, so I often end up translating and then doing English-language voiceovers. Regardless, even if someone does speak English, I always ask them questions in Spanish too, so that my colleagues at CNN en Espanol can use the material to put together a report in Spanish.

After that, I shot my “stand-up” -- the part of the story where you see the reporter talking to the camera. I wanted to have the movement of the EAAF workers in the background, and show as much of the cemetery as possible. Cameraman Eduardo Aragona and I had to seek out a few locations where it would be possible for me to walk-and-talk (without tripping over a gravestone, which I did, twice) while also having the proper sunlight and background. We did about seven takes, and got two keepers, one of which we used in the final report. Throughout the day, I also shot more informal “stand-ups” for the CNN International show, “Backstory” which takes viewers behind the scenes of a story, and whose format I am attempting to emulate in print here. Here's that report.

After we finished shooting, we started saying goodbye to everyone, which took awhile, because there were about 25 people there at that point. We drove an hour back to Buenos Aires city and headed to the Almagro neighborhood to have a late lunch before our meeting with Ana Feldman later that afternoon. Ana’s 18-year-old sister, Laura, was “disappeared” by the military in 1978. The interview with Ana was equally emotional as the earlier ones, as she told me about her sister and her long efforts to locate and receive her remains. She was able to accomplish that thanks to the work of the EAAF. Ana is the first person we hear from in my report. The photograph I took of her below, holding a photo of her late sister, was displayed prominently last Tuesday on the homepage of, which helped make it one of the site's most popular stories that day.

We then left Ana’s apartment and returned to the bureau. I was tired and sunburned, but satisfied knowing that we had the material to tell an important story, and tell it well.

Photos by Brian Byrnes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Article: Riding with Pablo Escobar's Son

I was in a car on the Panamericana Highway in Buenos Aires last week with two men I had just met, both of whom I was interviewing for a story I was working on for Newsweek. One of them, Nicolas, asked me where I grew up, and when I told him Baltimore, he veered the conversation (as many often do) to “The Wire.” We both agreed that it was one of the best television series ever made. The other guy, Sebastian, had never seen the show, so I starting breathlessly telling him how the writing, acting and photography were unmatched, and how it portrayed the modern urban American experience so vividly, and how it gave viewers laser-sharp insight into the inner workings of inner-city drug cartels.....

About 45 seconds into my fawning discourse, I recognized the sheer absurdity of the situation: the man I was glorifying the American drug culture to was the son of the world’s most famous drug dealer, Pablo Escobar.

Yes, I was talking drugs with Juan Pablo Escobar, who now goes by the name Sebastian Marroquin. Thankfully, I stopped myself just short of offering to lend him my DVD copies of Season 1-5. Now, that would have been weird. I don’t think Marroquin would find “The Wire” particularly entertaining. At least I hope not, especially since the reason I was in the car with him and director Nicolas Entel was the new documentary film they just released called “Sins of My Father,” essentially a 90-minute apology from Marroquin to the Colombian people for the many gross, violent and bloody acts committed by his father when he was the richest, most powerful and ruthless drug kingpin on the planet.

I was the only journalist in the world invited to watch the film with Marroquin and Entel. It would be the first time either of them had seen the final cut on the big screen. There were literally only seven of us in the theater, all of whom were associated with the production, except for me. Sitting next to Marroquin and stealing glances of him as he watched his life story play out onscreen was emotional, indeed.

At first, I wasn’t anxious to write this story. Several other international media outlets had already interviewed Marroquin by telephone and published stories. But through some hustle and some luck, I managed to get something no one else did: I had met Marroquin personally, shook his hand, watched him as he watched himself. That was my story, and what would set my article apart from the others. When I told my editor in New York this, she was excited, and we agreed that I would take the somewhat unusual (although increasingly common) step of writing myself into the story, using a few, sparing first-person accounts. She also decided to turn this from a one-page article to a two-page spread in the magazine, using several photographs, and including a sidebar Q+A.

I can state unequivocally that Escobar’s offspring is a nice guy. Quiet. Shy. A hulking presence, similar to his father’s, I assume. He also looks just like him. All he is missing is a moustache, as I noted in my Newsweek article here.

Admittedly, describing how ice-cool Avon Barksdale is to Pablo Escobar’s son is sort of stupid. Or surreal. Either way, it reminded me why I do what I do, and why I love it so much.
You can read excerpts from my conversation with Marroquin in Newsweek here. Not all the questions made it into the magazine, so I offer more from our conversation below:

Brian Byrnes: Do you still speak with your relatives in Colombia?

Sebastian Marroquin: Yes, I still keep in touch with my aunts and uncles in Colombia from my mother’s side. Not on my father’s side. They are very happy that we could demonstrate a face of the family that was always hidden. They said to me ‘Nephew, after so many years of a bad image, it is great that you can show our good side now.’ They understand that the message that we are trying to send to the world now is a positive one. They have a lot of hope, and so do I.

You now make a living as an architect in Argentina, correct?

I make money as an architect and I have money that family members left me.

Your father’s money?

No, this comes from my mother’s side. All my father’s money has been confiscated. I have absolutely zero knowledge or any access to any money, properties or cars that belonged to my father. It’s all in the hands of the government. The only thing that the family of Pablo Escobar still has is his surname.

Your younger sister did not participate in the film. Why not?

She was just a child when all this war was going on with my father. At a very young age, she was a prisoner to the situation. Despite the fact that she couldn’t even speak up to declare her innocence, she was imprisoned. And she really values her privacy now. She supported me all the way during this process of reconciliation. I can’t say that this helps lessen her pain, but she prefers to maintain a low profile and continue with her studies.

In the film, before you enter the room to meet the Galan brothers, you paused in front of the door. What was going through your mind at that moment?

I was remembering what I had written in the letter to them, and what it would be like to speak with someone whose pain was so acute. I was thinking ‘When I open this door, how do I begin the conversation? Would it be good to say “good afternoon”? Or would it be better just to say “hello?” What would be the right way to address people in this situation who were the victims?’ It was very difficult to choose the right words. It was almost impossible. Each one of the sons reacted in their own way. And it was really a noble act on their part to meet with me.

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Marroquin/Red Creek Productions.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Mark & Maria

Argentina has been in the world spotlight this week, thanks to the indiscretions of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, pictured above with Buenos Aires Gov. Daniel Scioli in La Plata, Argentina exactly one year ago today, June 26, 2008, apparently right around the time his affair with an Argentine woman, believed to be Maria Belen Chapur, started.

I have been working like crazy the last two days on this story. Nothing gets the U.S. press more worked up than a political sex scandal, and I've been getting calls from every media outlet imagineable, asking for my help in tracking down the alleged amante. So far, no one has had any luck speaking with her, or even seeing her. Local and international press have been staked out at her apartment in Palermo since Wednesday night. I was there that night, filming b-roll of the building and neighborhood for CNN. Yesterday, I did a live shot on the CNN International show "I-Desk" talking about the media frenzy, and Argentine's bemusement over American's obsession with high-profile affairs. As I said on-air, philandering politicians are the norm here.

Now that the King of Pop has passed, I'll be curious to see if the U.S. media's interest in this story stays strong, or fades away.....

Power Shift in Argentina?

The campaigning officially ended last night, but Argentina is still at a fever pitch ahead of Sunday's mid-term Congressional elections, which have essentially become a referendum on Nestor and Cristina Kirchner (above), a situation created entirely of their own doing.

Here's a story I filed this week for CNN International on the possible power shift, and another, shorter item in this week's Newsweek International.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

ArteBA 2009

ArteBA is always one of my favorite cultural events of the year in Buenos Aires. It's full of fantastic art from around the continent, and it's glamorous too, but in a way that is accessible to everyone, not just the cultural 'elite.' As a result, it attracts an eclectic, and enormous, crowd every year. There's something to be said for that, because that is not the case with art fairs in many cities around the globe.

I've written about ArteBA before, in this article for ARTINFO in 2006. This year, I covered it for CNN International and, but approached the story from a decidedly different angle, as the world's economic situation is much different than it was three years ago.

To my surprise (and theirs), every gallery owner I spoke with told me that sales were strong.

You can watch the CNNI report here and read the story here.

And here's my behind-the-scenes report for "Backstory"

All photos by Brian Byrnes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Barter Clubs are Back

Barter Clubs are back in Buenos Aires.

Last Saturday, I visited one in the gritty rustbelt town of Isidro Casanova, about 45 minutes west of downtown Buenos Aires. I filed a report about it for CNN International and for You can watch the video here and read the article here. I also filed a 'behind-the-scenes' report for the CNNI show "Backstory" which you can see here.

As I note in the story, barter clubs are not a new phenomenon in Argentina. The network of clubs was first established in 1995, but it wasn't until after Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 that they really became popular. The founder I interviewed, Ruben Ravera, told me that in 2002, more than 2 million people used to participate regularly. That's a lot for a country of just 40 million. In recent months, more clubs have popped up, especially in the rural northern provinces of Argentina, and participation in urban Buenos Aires is on the rise too.

During the shoot, we met Nelly Vasquez (above, with her 6-month-old daughter, Antonella), a 29-year-old mother of two who lost her job at a clothing factory last year. She said she comes to the barter club every week because it's her only way for her to put food on the table. She brought bunches of wool, clothes and shoes and fortunately had some takers that day, as I saw her sell a blouse that she then traded for vegetables. Nelly wasn't enthusiastic about speaking to us on-camera, but once we chatted for awhile, she agreed to speak, and she had some great things to say. Antonella was mostly cooperative while we were rolling, although she did rip the microphone off her mother's shirt at one point. We cut, pinned the mic again, and started over. It happens.

After we finished shooting, we were introduced to Alberto Censi (above) who brings baked goods and booze to the club every weekend. He insisted, and I mean insisted, that cameraman Eduardo Aragona and I sample his homemade Gancia, which is a popular Argentine spirit. It tasted what I imagine lighter fluid tastes like, but I grinned and beared it, and finished my glass. All in a day's work.

I met some very nice people that day, although not everyone was nice. In fact, one woman yelled at me, really yelled in my face, because she felt we were taking advantage of the club members by filming them. She also accused me of being a politician who was trying to exploit the club for money. I had to politely explain to her that our intention was to show Argentina's current economic reality, nothing more. Needless to say, we steered clear of her table the whole day.

I really enjoyed doing this story, and hopefully we shed some light of what's happening in Argentina, and gave viewers/readers around the world some insight into how people in Argentina (who are very accustomed to instability) are coping with the global economic crisis.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Buenos Aires Book Fair

I was invited by the U.S. Embassy to lead two chats at the Buenos Aires Book Fair about two books that I have worked on in recent years.

The first chat, which we called "Mixing Cocktails & Languages" was led by myself and Rodolfo Reich, author of "Cocteleria Argentina" - an awesome and informative book about the cocktail culture in Argentina. I did the English-language translation of the book, entitled "Mixology in Argentina."

The chat focused on the difficulty of translating Argentine expressions, as well as the names of liquors and ingredients used in popular local cocktails, from Spanish to English. I am not a translator, and had never done anything like this before, which is why we refer to the book as an "interpretation" not a "translation." I suppose I did something right because "Mixology" was recently nominated for a prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the "Best Translation" category.

You can read two reviews of the book here and here.

The second chat was about my experiences as a travel writer, specifically my work on the Fodor's Travel Guides to Argentina and Buenos Aires. I just completed Fodor's Buenos Aires 2nd edition, where I once again wrote the Hotels and Restaurant chapters, to be published in 2010. I still don't understand why it takes so long to publish a book. If a newspaper can be printed in one day, and a magazine in a week, why does a book need an entire year? It's endlessly frustrating because I know some of the places that I review will be completely different (or worse, closed) by the time the book is published. But I digress. The chats at the book fair went very well. Thanks to all who attended. Photos below by the talented Felix Busso.

Photos by Felix Busso.

Che Lives!

I filed a report this week that aired on the new CNN International show called "Connect the World" about a new book about Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The book, "Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image" by Michael Casey examines the iconic image of Che taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in Havana on March 5, 1960 (see above). As I write in an accompanying article on, these days the image is used by "communists and capitalists, Marxists and marketers" to sell ideas. It's a fascinating premise, and the book is a good read. Check it out.

Photo courtesy of Alberto Korda.

Will Ornette Coleman Please Stand Up?

So I was watching local news last night and Canal Trece's "Telenoche" was reporting about jazz legend Ornette Coleman's Argentina premiere on Thursday night at the historic Teatro Gran Rex. Clearly, jazz fans (and there are many here) were ecstatic about his arrival.

The only problem was that until a few hours earlier, they couldn't find him.

Apparently, the 79-year-old sax player had disappeared at some point on Wednesday and had not been seen for 24 hours. Clearly, this was cause for concern, on several levels. According to Canal Trece, Coleman (which they repeatedly pronounced as "Col-ay-Mun") had eluded his bodyguards at the Panamericano Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires and was nowhere to be seen. It was not until early Thursday (the day of the gig) that he was found, passed out and alone on the street, in Tigre, a Buenos Aires suburb some 45 minutes from downtown. Let's just let that one sink in for a minute: He is 79-years-old, but apparently isn't too old to go on a bender and get himself lost somewhere in South America. I love jazz guys. They don't mess around. They get after it. Of course, maybe he just forgot to take his medicine and became disoriented and wandered off, but me thinks that if you are found sleeping on the street, well, then, it must have been a hell of a night. We've all been there, right?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tough Stories to Report: Anti-Semitism in Argentina

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself reporting a lot on anti-Semitism, unfortunately.

The ironic reality of this is that while Argentina is home to one of the world’s largest Jewish populations (some 250,000), it also served as a haven for Nazi war criminals, and was the site of two deadly anti-Semitic terrorist attacks in the 1990s. 114 people were killed in the 1992 and 1994 bombings. Both attacks remain unsolved.

In news related to the 1994 AMIA Jewish Center bombing, I wrote a story yesterday for about Claudio Lifschitz, a former investigating lawyer into the AMIA attack, who says he was kidnapped and tortured last Friday by three masked men claiming to be agents of Argentina’s national intelligence agency.

As you can see from the photos above, which Lifschitz himself sent to me, his arm was burned with a blowtorch, and the word ‘AMIA’ was carved into his back with a knife. Scary stuff.

When I spoke to Lifschitz, he seemed calm, and almost resigned to the fact that these sort of things will happen to those who speak out against alleged government corruption in Argentina. This is a sad state of affairs.

You can read my full report on the incident here at

In February, I filed a series of on-air and on-line reports for CNN about Bishop Richard Williamson (above), the ultra-conservative priest who made comments denying the extent of the Holocaust in an interview with Swedish television. The interview was broadcast just two days after the Vatican decided to lift his excommunication, creating a major controversy for Pope Benedict XVI. When it was revealed that Williamson lived here in Argentina, media outlets from around the world scrambled to get an interview with him, including CNN. Nobody was successful (save Germany’s Spiegel, who did an email/fax interview with him), but we were able to speak to some residents of La Reja, Argentina, where the St. Pius X seminary that Williamson has led since 2003 is located. You can watch that report here.

Williamson was soon removed from his post at the seminary, and shortly thereafter, Argentina’s Interior Ministry told him he had ten days to leave the country, or face expulsion. Argentine authorities clearly did not welcome the added attention the country was receiving as a result of Williamson living here.

A few days later, Williamson was at the Buenos Aires Int’l Airport (EZE) where he was approached by a local television journalist with the cameras rolling. What transpired was truly amazing. The images captured by Argentina’s Canal 13/TN were sent out by Associated Press Television, and aired around the world, including on CNN International, where I did a “look-live" report from the Buenos Aires bureau. My report is not available online, but you can watch the video here of Williamson confronting the local reporter in all his dark-glasses-and-clenched-fist-to-the-face-and-elbow-to-the-groin-glory. Not very becoming of a man of the cloth, huh?

I would have loved to have been able to stakeout the airport and wait for Williamson to show up, but unfortunately, I don’t have the financial resources to fund that kind of operation. Thankfully, the local press was there. When Williamson arrived the next morning in London, he was met by an enormous crowd of media, as well as supporters and detractors. He is back in his home country now, and is likely to keep a low profile, but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this case. Some countries may try to extradite and press criminal charges against him for denying the Holocaust. Stay tuned.

I discussed the Bishop Williamson case as a guest on “Beyond the Pale” a weekly radio show that airs on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York. You can listen to the interview I did with host Esther Kaplan here.

Photos courtesy of Claudio Lifschitz and AFP/Getty Images.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Trendwatch: I-Bankers Invade Buenos Aires

This week’s sign that the apocalypse is upon us……

According to a “Trendwatch” report posted today on Gawker, Buenos Aires is now attracting a whole new slew of Ex-Pats: laid-off investment bankers. Fantastic!

I’m not questioning the veracity of this “trend” (in fact, I know one such person: a high school classmate of mine arrived here a few months ago after losing his I-Banking job in NYC), but the fact that vapid online Manhattan media outlets are devoting virtual ink to this has me bracing for the inevitable occurrence in the very near future when I overhear a wannabe Master-of-the-Universe in a button-down in Palermo marveling at “how fucking cheap it is here, man. This would cost like $200 bucks in the city.”

There’s been real ink shed on this topic recently as well: A New York Observer piece is what originally piqued Gawker’s interest, and The Washington Post also filed a similar, yet pointedly more academic, dissection of the trend in an A1 story last Friday.

But unfortunately, Gawker’s post will likely get the most eyeballs, and generate the most comments, because, hey, that’s the way things work in our quasi-journalistic online world these days.

Of course, I am guilty of writing a similar “foreigners are flocking to Buenos Aires” story, as are several of my BsAs-based colleagues, and that’s fine. We identified what we considered to be a legitimate trend, and we reported it. (My Newsweek piece on this topic was plagiarized by the New York Times last year, although they refused to acknowledge it despite overwhelming evidence.)

But to get this info from Gawker, and to know that it will be taken as gospel by many readers, is disheartening. To boot: Gawker's post today makes cheeky references to two well-known Buenos Aires landmarks, and gets them both wrong: the Teatro Colon has been closed for renovation for some two years, so it’s not likely that any visitor (I-Banker or not) has strolled through there recently, and last time I checked “Pablo Neruda’s old house” was in Chile, not Argentina. (I know, I know, it’s hard to keep track of these Latino literary legends. Neruda, Borges, Marquez....what’s the difference, right?)

**UPDATE** - My friend, the always reliably snarky Fernando Cwilich Gil, has also taken issue with this disturbing trend, and says so in a post today on BlackBook.

Fernando's been writing some really insightful and salty Buenos Aires-related posts these past weeks on BlackBook, be sure to check them out.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"United States of Argentina"

An article appears in this week's edition of The American Conservative (a publication that I, admittedly, have never read) entitled "United States of Argentina."

The author, Philip Jenkins, draws some intriguing parallels between Argentina's perpetual economic misfortunes, and the current financial woes facing the United States. Essentially he makes the argument that the U.S. looks to be following remedies repeatedly employed by Argentina -- and that the country should avoid doing so at all costs.

I don't agree with all of Jenkins' comparisons, but the article is certainly worth a read, both for those with an interest in the utter complexity and absurdity of Argentine politics, and those trying to get their heads around how the world got into this mess, and ideas on how we might get out of it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Campo in Crisis

I reported two stories for CNN this week about Argentina's drought, the worst in half-a-century.

I witnessed the devastation first-hand on a visit to San Miguel del Monte, where I took these photos.

My first report aired on Tuesday, and examined the emergency decree declared by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to help farmers cope with the drought.

To get reaction from farm leaders, CNN en Espanol correspondent Javier Doberti, cameraman Eduardo Aragona and I staked out a meeting in downtown Buenos Aires on a sweltering afternoon. The farmers and the government are constantly at odds, so the back-and-forth between the two entities is always front-page news here, therefore any and all appearances by farming leaders is always covered "en vivo y en directo" (LIVE) by the five, yes that's right five, 24-hour news station based in Buenos Aires.

When Eduardo Buzzi of the Argentine Agrarian Federation arrived he took a few questions. I had to contend with an over-zealous cameraman, who kept pushing me to try and get a better shot. I know better than to be pushed around by shooters, so I stood my ground, kept the microphone steady, and we got the sound and pictures that we needed. Fortunately, Javier was able to grab Buzzi for a one-on-one interview immediately after (much to the consternation of the local press, but that's the benefits of working for CNN). The exclusive quotes from Buzzi are what we both used in our reports that day.

After gathering archive footage of the drought, as well as soundbites from Kirchner's announcement, I began writing my script, and once approved, I took a quick taxi ride with Javier and Eduardo to the Casa Rosada to shoot my "stand-up" which is what I used to "close" my report.

To get a better understanding of how the drought is affecting Argentine farmers, we traveled the next day to San Miguel del Monte, 65 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, where we met with local farmers Juan Cahen D'Anvers and Cesar Gioia, as well as the Argentine Rural Society representative, Lorena del Rio. Here's that report.

As you can see from the photos, it is ugly. Dead cows. Scorched crops. Bone-dry canals and rivers. Farmers are losing lots of money, and world supplies of commodities like soy, wheat, corn and beef could be threatened, as Argentina is one of the world's top exporters of these products.

Here's a report I wrote for about the situation.

I hope for the farmers sake, and consumers around the world, that some rain is on the way.